Putting U.S. interests in Afghanistan ahead of our torn relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai makes sense, but needs action soon to avoid a crisis later. Our strategic stakes in the country remain high. A total withdrawal -- the infamous "zero option" -- would be seen as a sign of divine favor and counted as a strategic victory by the Taliban and al-Qaida. It would also encourage the reawakened al-Qaida movement in Iraq and its twin in Syria, as well as extremists in Pakistan. It would cause chaos as Afghanistan enters a new electoral cycle that will end Karzai's tenure in 2014.
But the fact that Afghanistan is preparing for its first ever peaceful change of leadership is emblematic of the progress we have made. Yes, there is corruption, brutality, and bad governance, but in 2001, there was no government at all. Now there are fledgling institutions that have grown enormously after three decades of war. Afghan security forces that were less than 100,000 when I went to Afghanistan in 2005 now total 350,000. They have stood up well during their first year leading combat operations, but major gaps in developing essential support services and logistical infrastructure remain. This is not surprising, as we only began building these service forces in 2010; our military never expected to finish training them before 2016. But it is precisely because we need to finish building and fielding these forces that we need a few years more of essential mentorship. This residual force (somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 troops) would represent less than 10 percent of the forces we once deployed to combat; a modest investment for the stakes involved. Retaining this small force to train the Afghans is essential to secure Afghan political support for the even smaller U.S. counterterrorism force that we need for our own security.
With the NATO combat mission coming to an end in December, we have sought a new legal basis for our troops to stay in the country after 2014, the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), although we could remain with our current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), so long as neither we nor the Afghans withdraw from it. NATO, however, must have a new agreement, especially as the current mission is tied to U.N. resolutions. The assumption was that the NATO agreement would follow and be patterned after the BSA, but now both agreements are stalled. The BSA has been endorsed by an ad hoc assembly of 3,000 Afghans, the upper house of the Afghan parliament, numerous Afghan political leaders, and tribal delegations, striking proof that we have not worn out our welcome. So why won't Karzai sign it?
His refusal comes from the fact that he is playing a political game based on the deeply held and wildly erroneous belief that the United States' strategic desire to have bases in Afghanistan will compel us to stay. His belief is founded on his analysis of numerous actions and mistakes, such as trying to find alternate presidential contenders in 2009, in our dealings with him over the past five years. But the reasons don't really matter. Instead, what matters is understanding that he really believes we want to stay, as he has explained to me and numerous others many times. Every time we press him to sign the agreement or set yet another deadline for signing that we don't keep (first it was October, then December, then January, then "weeks not months") we add to his conviction that we are desperate and he has the upper hand. Many Western officials (including myself), the Iraqi Foreign Minister, American academics, and Afghans themselves have tried to explain to Karzai that Americans are tired of war and many want an excuse to quit. We have all failed, however, to convince him of this and he views these efforts as part of an elaborate American charade to get its way. The efforts to press him to sign only empower his resistance.
And Karzai has reasons to wait. Not signing the BSA will allow him to remain the central figure in Afghan politics until the next president is elected. In a country where politics is about physical, as well as political, survival, this is no small thing. Karzai believes, with some justification, that we have failed to keep previous commitments on night raids, detainees, and other issues. It is part of the deep distrust that now clouds our relationship. But it is important to understand that he sees his delay in signing the BSA as giving him some control over our actions -- control that he will lose once he signs the document. He may dangle hints of a change in front of the world to keep all eyes focused on him, but the logic of his position is that he will wait.
Several commentators, including former commanding general in Afghanistan John R. Allen and former National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley, have made the point that we should look to our long-term interests in Afghanistan and wait to sign the BSA with Karzai's successor; and they are right. Our interests in the country far outweigh our interests in the man. But this doesn't solve the larger problem of time.
Although the Afghan elections are scheduled for April, it could be November before a new president is in place. That could pressure us to begin withdrawing troops in order to reach the default goal of zero by the end of the year, if there were no agreement. And it would leave no time for our NATO allies to finish the parallel security agreements necessary for their forces to remain.
The possibility of delay in seating the new president exists for multiple reasons. Every Afghan election has been somewhat delayed by last-minute problems. Claims of fraud may delay the first-round results. The requirement for a run-off election (if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote) makes a second-round likely and will take time to organize. Its result is also likely to be disputed. Hence, the probability that a new president will take office only very late this year is quite high. That would then make signing the BSA a political crisis for the new government just as it tries to get organized. Such a situation would keep Afghanistan mired in uncertainty throughout this critical year and continue to enhance Karzai's position. It can and should be avoided.
Our forces are legally protected in Afghanistan after 2014 by the existing SOFA, but NATO is not, which is why we have asserted the need for the BSA. Since finalizing the document soon seems unlikely, we should move now for passage of a short, perhaps four month, extension of the U.N. Security Council mandate and related NATO agreements, while saying that we would stay for the same period under the existing SOFA. We would say that these actions are to avoid suspense and crisis, while noting that doing so respects the overwhelming support of Afghan politicians and people, as well as Karzai's repeated statement that the BSA may need to await the next president of Afghanistan. It would be a largely procedural step to end the current crises, remove from Karzai's hand the leverage he now has, calm Afghan fears during the election, and leave our NATO allies with the time they need to finish their own agreements. And it is a step we should begin now.
Ronald E. Neumann was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and returns to the country frequently.